By Jennifer Nixon, Denver Zoo Bird Keeper
Introducing this week’s feathered friend Salem, the double-wattled cassowary (Casuarius casuarius), also known as the southern cassowary. There are 3 subspecies of cassowary; the northern cassowary, the dwarf cassowary and the double-wattled cassowary. Members of the ratite family, cassowaries are related to ostrich, emu and rhea, all of which are flightless birds. They are second in size only to the ostrich.
Salem turned 19 years old this May. She has been paired with a previous Feathered Friend, Murray, since he arrived in 2008. If you see both of them in the yard it is easy to tell the difference based on size. Salem has a very stern look on her face which matches her personality. She is big and can be aggressive. Murray also has a slight under bite which gives him a comical facial expression. Salem and Murray both eat a diet of fruit here at the zoo but are fed separately due to the Salem’s food nature. She is especially nasty when she thinks someone is eating her food. Since she is naughty by nature please keep all food and other items secure so they don’t accidentally fall into the yard. This will help keep her and Murray safe.
Female cassowaries can stand 6.6 feet tall and weigh 129 pounds. Salem is on the large side of that range. Both sexes have a helmet-like crest on top of their heads called a casque. In the wild, these protect cassowaries from injury when they force their way through dense forest. Another adaptation for forest dwelling is their coarse black feathers that protect their bodies from thorns and sharp leaves. The coloration on the face and neck is beautiful red, blue and purple shades. At the base of the neck they have two folds of red skin, called wattles, where they got the name double-wattled cassowary. They also have three toes on each foot, each equipped with a long dagger-like claw. These daggers, along with their ability to kick very hard and jump very high make them a very formidable animal if confronted. If that was not enough, they can also run up to 30 mph and swim.
Double-wattled cassowaries are typically shy birds found in dense forests of New Guinea, northern Australia and some islands of Indonesia. Their population size is considered “vulnerable” with about 2500 Australian individuals and unknown numbers in its other areas. Their numbers are declining due to habitat loss and predation from feral animals and humans.
If cassowaries went extinct the rainforest of their natural areas would be very different. They are important seed-dispersers of more than 150 species of trees and other plants. Since they swallow many fruits whole, they disperse the seeds in another location, allowing the plants to have a wider dispersal area. Other animals would partially digest or damage the seeds before they could be dispersed. Seventy species of plants have smaller seeds, but many are toxic to other animals. Due to their rapid digestion, overactive liver and unique combination of stomach enzymes the cassowary can safely consume them and disperse the seeds. This makes them a keystone species.
Interesting cassowary fact: The Kalam Tribe of New Guinea believes the cassowary is the reincarnated souls of their female ancestors and it is forbidden to hunt or trade in the birds.
You can visit Salem at her yard on the back side of Bird World, Presented by Frontier Airlines.